If you look up the winners of the green jersey in the last 10 editions of the Vuelta a España, you will notice something remarkable. Only one of the 10 riders to win the green jersey over that decade was a pure sprinter, John Degenkolb, and eight of the 10 were pure general classification riders, such as Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, and Primož Roglič.
In fact, Valverde is tied with two other riders for the most green-jersey victories in the Vuelta – four. The other two riders with four points-classification wins in the Vuelta are Sean Kelly and Laurent Jalabert who were also not previously known for their ability to win a mass sprint. In 2020, Roglič won the green jersey with 204 points well ahead of another climber Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers, with Dan Martin of Israel StartUp Nation in third – not a single real sprinter among them.
The truth is that in its recent editions, the Vuelta hasn’t really seemed to want a lot of sprinting as if the mere appearance of a sprinter in the race would have been a cause for embarrassment. The Vuelta has more often been designed for climbers and all-rounders because the race’s primary direction recently has been vertical, up and down, not horizontal, which kept many of the world’s top sprinters from entering the race. But this year, it is different. This year, the organizers of the Vuelta have rolled out the red carpet for sprinters by revamping the points competition so that it will be far less likely that the green jersey will be won by a general-classification contender. Mountain stages no longer carry the same number of points as a flat stage, reducing the chance that the best climbers will also dominate the points classification competition.
This year, a stage win on the flat offers 50 points while a mountaintop finish gets you just 20. In addition, the winner of an intermediate sprint is awarded 20 points, which favours breakaway riders and could motivate green-jersey competitors to join a breakaway. Peter Sagan is not present at the Vuelta as he is still recovering from an injury suffered in the Tour de France. However, there is a rider who approaches the points classification race in the same way the Slovak does. Alex Aranburu of Astana PremierTech has taken points from a time trial, intermediate sprints, and some finishing sprints. Like Sagan, he is not the quickest on two wheels but he plans his campaign well.
His main rivals appear to be Fabio Jakobsen of Deceuninck QuickStep, Alpecin Fenix’s Jasper Philipsen, and Arnaud Démare of Groupama FDJ. Add former Tour de France green jersey winner Michael Matthews of Team BikeExchange to the mix and you have all the ingredients for a very hotly contested green jersey competition. Mass sprints have become a true team competition. Sure, the main sprinter has to be fast; and it certainly helps if he’s the fastest sprinter in the peloton as Mark Cavendish was in this year’s Tour de France. But a well-drilled team that knows when to accelerate, when and how long to lead out the sprinter, and when to let him take off can make up for many speed shortcomings. This is why Peter Sagan has often praised his Bora-Hansgrohe teammates for their contributions to his Tour de France green-jersey wins.
So far in the Vuelta, Philipsen’s Alpecin Fenix and Jakobsen’s Deceuninck QuickStep have been the best at creating ideal conditions for their sprinters to build on. As a result, the two riders have taken three of the first six stage wins in the Vuelta. For Jacobsen, his victory in stage 4 of the Vuelta was a confirmation of a remarkable recovery. The 24-year-old Dutchman was badly injured in a high-speed crash in last year’s Tour of Poland and underwent a long and strenuous convalescence.
The 23-year-old Philipsen won the points classification in last year’s Tour Down Under and the green jersey at the 2021 Tour of Turkey before taking two stages of this Vuelta. The emergence of these two young riders is another sign that a new generation of talented cyclists is on the verge of dominating the Grand Tours. With three flat stages, a number of intermediate sprints and a time trial remaining in the Vuelta, it looks increasingly as if Jakobsen and Philipsen will be the main contenders for the green jersey. After stage 6, it couldn’t be any closer between them. Philipsen leads with 131 points with Jakobsen just 1 point behind. Matthews is sitting fourth with 58 points while Aranburu has 52 points and Démare stands at 50.
The closest general classification rider is Roglič at 54 points. So there’s a very good chance that this year, a pure sprinter might actually win the green jersey at the Vuelta.